Seeing foxes

January 30, 2009

img_5077_3_21I have an obsession with red foxes. I can’t remember when it began. I think I was surprised that something as impractical as a red fox even exists. What do they do all day? Steal chickens from coops? Where do they find coops in Brentwood, Tennessee, amidst the Starbucks and franchise restaurants?

One evening, my family ate at Saltgrass Grill in Franklin, Tennessee for somebody’s birthday. My dad’s side numbers over thirty now with marriages and babies. I don’t remember the food being much to talk about, but after we finished and walked outside to our cars, my mom pointed and said, “There’s a fox!” I’d seen them before, but only at night and in place with some patches of forest in the midst of suburbs and strip malls. In other words, just the type of place a suburban fox would call home. I’d catch a glimpse of bush tail just as the fox slips out of the reach of my headlights. These sightings happened at night, on Granny White Pike, or Lyon’s Bend in Knoxville, or on the road that takes you out to Mt. Vernon in Washington, D.C. I remember when I’ve seen them because a fox is in my mind a sort of cinnamon-colored, canine unicorn from Aesop’s fables. They’re cunning and sneaky. So what was that one fox doing trotting across a parking lot at sunset, as though it were on an errand, running to the grocery to pick up milk? Trotting is probably the wrong word. The movements of foxes are fluid, closer to a cat than a dog. They’re legs are long for their bodies. They have sweet, almost shy faces. They sometimes carry rabies.

I happened to have my digital SLR in the truck with me, so I drove helter-skelter after this thing as it followed an invisible path through an office park, stopping for a sniff here and there. I parked my truck and followed on foot. The fox looked at me like a cat: “What do you want, you bumbling oaf? I know all your secrets.” Then, it walked off without any sign of alarm. He looked back a few times out of curiosity. He was definitely a he. I didn’t see any tell-tale signs, but I knew. He turned around and stared at me through some fence slats: “Okay, okay, I see you. What do you want?” He finally disappeared through some Bradford Pear trees and a wall of honeysuckle behind a building. Oh, I remember now why he was a he. He lifted up his leg to pee. He didn’t seem to care who was watching. I think I know people like that. I was on a football team with about sixty of them. They also smack each other on the rear and say, “Good Game,” but from what I could tell, that fox couldn’t talk. His larynx was the wrong shape.

I digress. I got home, uploaded the pictures onto my camera, and was pleased to find several worth keeping. I set one of them as the wallpaper on my laptop. However, it wasn’t until I was writing the abstract for my Master’s thesis that I fully understood why foxes hold such significance for me. Yes, they’re mysterious creatures. They provide an apt metaphor for Ted Hughes’s poem, “The Thought-Fox.” Foxes are elusive and sudden like inspiration. “The sharp, hot stink of fox”–what a wonderfully gritty phrase. I love Roald Dahl’s stories. He wrote one called The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I think Mr. Fox was after the hens. Aren’t we all. But sitting down with a sigh to try to summarize my collection of poems in 200 words or less or whatever the count was, I realized that a fox sighting was similar in ways to encounters with the Divine. God shows up in unexpected places. If you blink, you will miss Him. You have to be paying attention, which takes practice. Brother Lawrence wrote a book called Practicing the Presence of God. Apparently, he learned to immerse himself in God’s reality while washing dishes. Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age. God promises never to forsake us. I’ve wasted a lot of time crying and asking God where he is. I often forget that I already know where He is. His Spirit dwells inside of me. I have to practice planting myself in that truth so that by God’s grace I can live in light of it.

Keeping watch–vigilance–requires discipline. You might say that seeing God, and seeing foxes, is a lot like hitting a fastball. You have to train your spiritual eye. Some of us will never learn how to hit a fastball, so here’s the good news: if we seek, we will find. If we watch, we will see.

However, lest someone accidentally read this and misunderstand, I’m not saying seeing is believing. Faith hurts. Faith is hard. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, but when I die, I would like for people to say that I walked with a limp and took the name, “Israel,” because I wrestled with angels and cried out, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

So then, let seeing foxes be the guiding metaphor of this blog, whatever it may become. My prayer is that we all may know God, his son Jesus, and a fox or two.




January 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about complacency. I started a job on October 13 that I still like. Who would have thought that enjoyable jobs are out there. I’m paying off the credit card debt that I accumulated in graduate school. I’m paying all my bills on time. I’m trying to make my apartment comfortable without the help of my mother and two sisters who are much better at nesting than I am. I’m even putting a little money from each paycheck into a savings account and a Simple IRA.

In other words, I appear responsible. Perhaps I’m not building equity through home ownership, but a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what I meant by that. I do now. I have business cards, for goodness’ sake. I take my truck in for routine oil changes. I’m like good ole reliable dad without a wife or children.

How did this happen? I remember having a conversation with my parents about finances. My mother was trying to convince me that financial security was very important–and thus, very attractive–to most women. So, if I wanted to attract a good woman, I should practice more financial prudence. I think this conversation came up in relation to my sharing my plans with them for another adventure. My habit was to gut my bank accounts and travel to a far off country and take pictures and write poems and return knowing that the world was, in fact, my playground. After my mother tried to offer a reality check, I delivered what I thought was a brilliant counter-argument: the right woman would love me for who I was, not what I could offer her.

Now I see that both our points-of-view had problems. My mom was making a generalization, and I was more concerned with justifying my spending habits than thinking long-term. I criticized people my own age who followed the life-itinerary they accepted passively from Western culture or church culture or a “Christian” education: graduate high school, go to college, earn a degree, get a job, find a spouse, start making payments on a mortgage, have babies, and so on.complacency3

I resisted this itinerary. It seemed like unquestioning acquiescence to the status quo. Shoot, so many people get divorced these days that you’d think more young adults would get to know themselves and their motivations really well before entering a covenant relationship. When I get married, I want to stay married. I don’t want loneliness or insecurity or horniness or discontentment to drive my decision to spend the rest of my life with a woman. I want that decision to be about her. Sure, I’ll bring all sorts of hidden fears, wounds, and needs to the table. That’s unavoidable. We’re bound to blindside each other with junk from our families, past relationships, and sins. However, I’d like to think that deeper self-awareness might enable me to focus on what is within my power to change–myself, by the grace of God–rather than try to change her.

For example, I get irritable right before dinner if I’ve been drinking coffee all day. As the caffeine leaves my body, I tend to be negative and critical. I also need time by myself. If I don’t have some space for solitude, silence, and prayer on a regular basis, I don’t treat people well. I develop tunnel vision. I only see how people have failed and disappointed me. I take on a posture of defensiveness. If other people can’t meet my needs, I’d better protect myself from their needs. In other words, who I want to be gets turned upside down. I am most content when I am serving other. I most like being me when I respond with kindness, gentleness, and patience rather than fear, sarcasm, and criticism. When I die to myself, I gain myself. When I look after the needs of others, my own needs are met.

If caffeine withdrawal makes me irritable but I didn’t know it, I might point a finger at my wife rather than myself. Why did she forget to pick up milk? Why does she leave trash in her car? Why doesn’t she turn off the lights when she leaves the house?

sea11If solitude, silence, and prayer keep me centered in the reality of God-with-us in Jesus, then I will be much less likely to attribute my best friend’s failure to call me back to his lack of respect for me and other. I may have the grace to acknowledge that I am a victim of my own expectations rather than some grave injustice.

In his goodness, the Father provided me a job. I have shown my gratitude by saying, “Okay, God, I can take it from here.” Then, I mess up a good thing. I know that what I do is less important than who I am becoming. The Father is transforming me into a person who can meet others where they are without putting pressure on them to be who I want them to be.

My prayer is that I not wake up as a 45-year-old husband and father and realize my relationship with Jesus lost its intimacy and fire years ago, when I stopped trusting him for my welfare from moment to moment. I am afraid of that kind of complacency. Even more than a wife and family, I want to be a saint. I want to be one of the holy ones of God. I long for purity and holiness.

My deepest desires are for things that I cannot provide for myself. I hate to admit it, but I am in need. I have a need. I need Jesus right here, right now, to walk with me on the Way everlasting.

Why do I want to be a hero?

January 29, 2009

I was sitting with my friends Ben and Kristen in a children’s bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. Kristen loves to ask questions, and she came up with a good one for us: “What one word would you use to describe little boys?” I chose “Rambunctious” but have since forgotten what the other two said.

“What about little girls?” she asked next. I said, “Pointless,” and that drew a dirty look. Ben made a prudent decision by avoiding sarcasm. He mulled it over for a few moments before offering, “Princess.”

I think he nailed it. I have an older and younger sister, and when I think about them and all the other little girls I have met throughout my life, including my two nieces, I think that “Princess” sums up who little girls are and want to be.

I don’t mean to be reductionistic or oversimplify gender. I do believe that much of what we think is true about gender, especially gender roles, is socially constructed, embedded, and reinforced. If I were a three-year-old little boy, would I choose a train or a barbie doll? Which would I carry around and play with if I were given a choice between the two and no one swayed my decision either by limiting my choices or offering subtle hints of disapproval?

My friends Jeff and Meredith allowed their son Jasper to choose for himself. He chose the train. Most interesting, however, is what he did with the engine and train cars. He made them talk to each other. He gave them names. They had friendships and unique dynamics. In other words, he did with trains what a lot of little girls do with dolls.gingkotrees

I believe that we are essentially relational. So, I guess I do believe that gender is essential to who we are. I studied Judith Butler and some of her colleagues in a Literary Theory and Criticism class in grad school. Yes, separating men and women into two rigid genders–masculine and feminine–can cause problems. What about hermaphrodites and transsexuals? What about the woman born in a man’s body and vice versa? I hurt for people who never feel comfortable in their bodies, who must feel like they must suffer for some cosmic mistake. I cannot imagine how painful their confusion must have been as children and adolescents, not to mention how most communities ostracize anyone who is different in that way.

I don’t have all the answers, and I must confess some of these issues are uncomfortable to think about. Yet, when I think about the little boy I was and all the little boys I have ever known, I am amazed by the consistency and regularity of how we all played and how we play even in our adult years. We created situations in which we got to be heroes. Our games and our exploits always drifted the same direction: competition, victory, conquest. Feats of strength and endurance. Exploration and adventure. Fishing and hunting. I was the only one of my friends who rode my bike with no hands all the way from the neighborhood swimming pool to the dead end on one edge of our subdivision. Who cares? Why was this accomplishment so important to me? Why did it earn me the admiration and respect of my friends?

Consider professional sports. We pay to watch grown men throw around a ball made from leather or some synthetic material. We create rules that they must keep. Sports are this artifice through which we get to live out our boyish fantasies of heroism. I wanted to score the winning touchdown, catch the Hail Mary pass. I wanted to sink the half court shot at the buzzer. I wanted to play the tennis match of my life and win the state title for my high school team. I no longer have the opportunity to be the hero, so I enjoy the experience vicariously. I’ve heard somewhere that sports are men’s way of acting out their impulse to go to war.

Why? Is all this a complicated ritual of conjuring purpose and meaning where there is none? Are we hanging an elaborate curtain between the stage and the existential void on the other side? I think not.

Swinging a Pickax

January 29, 2009

The last year of my life has been the most difficult. At the end of a ten-month long intentional community, I found unemployment, unrequited love, unhealthy loved ones:  a series of un-‘s, a necklace of lacks.

I suppose I went through textbook stages of emotional tumult, including sadness, grief, frustration, anger, and on occasion, peace.  I wondered what was wrong with me.  Why wasn’t I more resilient?  I must not be trying hard enough.  The problem is you can no more heal by force of will a wound in your heart than you can one in your body. Healing takes time–a truth that brings no comfort.

When I taught high school for a year after finishing my Bachelor’s, I would run into more experienced teachers in the hall and copy room.  They’d ask me how it was going, and I always tried to be honest.  I tried to be funny so as not to alarm them, but said in effect, “Not good. Not good at all.”  It seemed like half my time was spent babysitting high-schoolers who should know better.  I was teaching at my alma mater, and while I was there, I knew better than to ask my junior English teacher if I could take a long-distance call on my cell phone during the Beowulf unit test.  One of my students did that.  I felt like I was failing on all fronts.  In front of the mirror, I found white hairs mixed in with the brown.  Those kids were sucking out my color, my vitality.  As they ran off copies of assignments and hand-outs, my colleagues response to this was, “Well, the first year’s always the worst.”  With this platitude and a Sweet ‘n Low smile, they returned to their Edens of Learning.

Saying the first year is the worst did nothing to carry me through the difficulty of those class sessions.  Saying that time heals all wounds is a lie. It doesn’t. Time deepens some wounds. Even if it were true, such knowledge makes for a poor painkiller.  Show me the man or woman who can sit around feeling wretched and not ask unanswerable questions at the same time.  Job of the Hebrew scriptures certainly suffered more than I have, and when he asked why he must suffer, Yahweh said something along the lines of, “Where were you when I made the world? Who is the clay to question the potter?”  God’s answers weren’t exactly a salve for Job’s boils. As sick as he must have been, something tells me that Job could have mustered enough energy to thrash anyone who came along and said, “Time heals all.”  Yes, but what about how I’m feeling now?

I’ve been looking for ways to pick up the pieces, to gather up my disappointments and take small steps forward.  Most of my efforts felt like swinging a pickax at a rock wall.  I could see chips flying, but was making no dent, certainly not an escape route.  It took me months to realize I was imagining my ideal life, the life I should be living, somewhere on the other side of that wall.  If I could just break through, I’d be living the life I wanted.  The woman I loved would love me back.  The literary press would offer me my dream job. A very clean and respectful roommate would opt to take the smaller room in my duplex in an effort to simplify his life.

I was squandering all my energy dreaming of how my life should be.  My fantasies took me out of the present, out of reality. Then, in a moment of clarity like the first dazzling shaft of sunlight after a rain, I understood:  This is my life.  The only one I have.  There is no other.  If I broke through the stone wall, I would find more of the same.  Not only this realization but more. My life is full of small gifts. An unexpected visit in the hospital from a lifelong friend and his wife. A much-needed check from my grandparents. Lunch at one of my favorite restaurants paid for by a brother.

My failure has been not in finding a job but in practicing gratitude and deepening in trust. Jesus of Nazareth observed how the Father looks after the sparrows.  He will also look after us. However, centering myself in my life, however barren or broken it may seem from day to day, and learning to trust that my desert will become a fragrant garden is often painful work.  I won’t choose to trust if I can choose instead to look after my own prosperity.  Perhaps I can use the shoulder strength from swinging that pick to hold up my hands in praise.

Barking Dogs

January 29, 2009

Every neighborhood has two types of dogs.

There are the quiet, submissive dogs that slink with their tails between their legs along the invisible border of the electric fence.  These are the dogs that gaze at you with wet eyes and look as if the fate of the free world is balanced between their shoulder blades.

There are also the barking dogs.  They cannot help but bark.  They cannot stop.  Their owners yell at them from front porches and back decks–“Shut up, you stupid dog!”  Their owners apologize when they have dinner guests:  “We got her at the shelter and think she might have been abused.” They plead with their dogs and try to soothe them:  “Sophie, be quiet.  Honey, it’s okay.  Please–stop–barking.  You be nice and come over here an say hello to Mommy’s friends.”  

Of course barking dogs could care less about our complicated systems of etiquette and decorum.  The only things that actually concern barking dogs are longer opportunities to bark.  Barking dogs arrange all sorts of growls, whines, woofs, and howls to serve the occasion: cars, oh yes, cars, they get barked; mothers pushing strollers; families riding bikes; and other dogs.  The apex of pleasure for a barking dog is the chance to bark at another dog.  More important than the sex of the victim or even the victim’s proximity to the barking dog is that nothing, especially another dog, gain passage through the barking dog’s dominion without proper abuse.

I have stared at a dog trembling with anger because, well, I don’t know, because I exist?  It would bark at me for standing nearby until one of us was dead.  I stop for a moment to contemplate the situation:  Why does he bark?  Most if not all dogs have the capacity.  A barking dog is a mystery.  Why is he unable to control himself?  He may bark out of fear or protective instinct or doggie joy, but I suspect there’s more to it.  I suspect he barks because he must.  Barking dogs have to bark.  I stand beside my truck or where I stopped my walk and consider this creature as he arranges another masterpiece.

His commitment to barking is beautiful.  That he even look at me while he barks is unnecessary.  He may pace, wearing a rut in the lawn, or he may bark over his shoulder as he walks away.  But he barks.  Why does he bark if the barking is not about me or even about him?

I understand him.  I write because I must.  I cannot help it.  Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to go through life as a person uninterested in writing, a quiet dog.  Of course here the metaphor breaks down, as all metaphors must.  The two categories of dogs do overlap. Sometimes the quiet dog musters a yip or two.  Sometimes the barking dog finds better amusement than harassing every passer-by.  I am not saying that people for whom writing holds no special allure are quiet or submissive.

I used to speculate why I derived from writing such intense and consistent enjoyment.  The operation is simple enough:  stringing together words to form sentences and paragraphs, to ultimately capture and convey an image or idea or coherent thought, to produce a moving piece of writing that bore something of me, of my heart and mind and soul.  But why?

I now feel less compelled to identify my motives, hidden and explicit, as if doing so would matter to anyone but me in the first place.  Even as I use words to capture certain experiences or exercises in contemplation, I feel less inclined to isolate why expressing myself was so important to begin with.

That I am a child of God, reborn in Christ, engaged in acts of imagination and creation is enough, is an end of itself.  When Moses asked God, materially present in a burning bush, who He was, God responded, “I am that I Am.”  He was sufficient unto Himself to explain Himself. Peace comes when we cease seeking to understand layers of hidden motives and agendas for our every action and behavior and instead turn to contemplate God’s love.  When we move past morbid introspection, and instead dwell on God’s divine life within us, we hand over the need to take care of ourselves, fix ourselves, and protect ourselves.  We concern ourselves less with doing and more with simply being.

Barking dogs bark because they must.  I write because I must.  I write because I am.  Somehow as the Father’s love flowed to His Son and is the Holy Spirit, in the first act of love in an infinity of beginnings, and then the Godhead breathed life into us in an act of love and power, we received God’s character and image, Imago Dei.  We all carry a portion of God’s mystery.  We must create  because we are born of and sustained by God’s love and power.  If at first I wrote out of fear or joy, I now understand that I create because I was created.